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Memorial Day 2009 - A Look at Women in the Military

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While the media parses the ongoing debate between Obama and Cheney on patriotism, terrorism and torture, there is another story that begs for attention this Memorial Day weekend. It is the narrative of service to our country by women, which too often goes unacknowledged.

Enmeshed in the stories of women who have served in the military, are the accounts of sexual harassment and abuse that are starting to see the light of day. The issue of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has consistently been swept under the rug.

At a House Committee hearing on Female Veteran's Affairs held on May 20th, it got an airing. The oldest veteran present, Josephine Anton, served as a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) during World War II. When Rep. Timothy J. Walz (DFL-Minn.) asked the assembled panel if there had been any progress on the problem of sexual assault in the armed services, the general consensus was negative.

Jen Hogg, former Army Sergeant and Associate Director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), was present in Washington to listen as Anuradha Bhagwati, former Marine Corps Captain and the Executive Director of SWAN gave testimony. Bhagwati discussed female vet's health care benefits, and the current policies regarding treatment of MST victims. In a pre-hearing press release Bhagwati stated, "Female veterans leaving the military with physical and psychological wounds from service are being treated like second class citizens by the Department of Veterans Affairs." Her on-site testimony was even more damning, as she related elements of her own experience:

"As a regular patient at the Manhattan VA Hospital for the last three years, I am intimately experienced with the trials of receiving quality health care and benefits from the VA for both physical injuries and psychological wounds, including Military Sexual Trauma (MST). The last place many survivors of MST want to go for treatment or counseling is a VA hospital. My first trip to the Manhattan VA Hospital was a nightmare. I felt like I was running a gauntlet as I stepped into the lobby and was confronted by a sea of hostile faces, all of them male. Most veterans and VA employees assume women veterans are secretaries, wives, or cleaning staff. Many employees refuse us the common courtesy and professional service that they extend to male veterans. The first psychiatrist I saw rolled his eyes at me when I told him I needed to talk to a female doctor. The MST counselor was too overbooked to take me on as a patient. A physician was so shocked that I had been a Marine that he told me I looked like a 'shopkeeper.' I've been lectured and counseled by dozens of nurses, many of them women, who feel that they are at liberty to talk to female veterans in an unprofessional manner. When I shared my frustrations with the women veterans' coordinator, she told me I "should be happy to have free health care." To add insult to injury, despite the detailed evidence I submitted supporting service-connected trauma from MST - including witness statements from an Equal Opportunity investigation that the Marines by policy destroyed two years after the fact - the VA rejected my claim. At that point I had to make a difficult choice between appealing my claim and having my trauma dragged on for several more years, or giving up. Being a veteran is already a full-time job."

I spoke by telephone with Hogg, one of the ten founders of SWAN, about her evolution from soldier to activist. She explained that the established veteran groups which she had been hooking up with were not giving sufficient attention to the concerns that were endemic to female vets. Hogg conveyed to me, "I was repeatedly told that MST was a woman's issue."

The delineated goal of SWAN is to "fill the giant national void in leadership, advocacy, and policy design for women veterans and sevice members, as well as women considering military service."

They have laid out an ambitious agenda, targeting six core points.

• Comprehensive VA Health Care of Women Vets - This includes an elevated awareness in
all VA facilities, and access to female practioners.
• Military Sexual Trauma - Counseling, pro-bono legal services and advocacy.
• Support for LGBT women in the military - Gay women are discharged by the Department
of Defense at twice the number as for male counterparts.
• Homeless women vets - The homeless population stats currently show that one of three
homeless people nationwide are veterans. Women and their children comprise a growing
part of this demographic.
• Education and Counseling - With recruiters under pressure to fill quotas, they are reaching
out to young women. SWAN members are involved in presenting a voice at high school and
colleges relating information about their personal service.

The Pentagon confirmed that one in three women serving her country has been the victim of a sexual assault. There were 3,000 sexual assaults "reported" in 2008 (as opposed to those that went unreported for fear of ostracism or repercussion). It is clear that the problems of our service women need to be heard and addressed.

Voices about the inequities are starting to enter into the mainstream conversation.
Col. (Ret.) Ann Wright has lectured tirelessly about the injustices endured by women in the military. Most recently Helen Benedict wrote The Lonely Soldier -- The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq.

Hopefully, in between the barbecues and the parades, our citizens will reflect on both the physical and emotional challenges that our service women have -- and continue -- to face.

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